“What is art, / But life upon the larger scale, the higher / … Art’s life, — and where we live, we suffer and toil,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in her epoch-making 1856 epic novel in blank verse, Aurora Leigh — arguably the first far-reaching literary manifesto for women’s right to autonomy in art and life, and for the indivisibility of the two in any artist’s body of work.
More than a century and a half later, Amanda Palmer — an artist of uncommon courage in making the arena of toil and suffering a wellspring of art, a kind of punk philosopher and poet for our own era (and my dear friend) — articulates that indivisibility with her signature fusion of vulnerability and steampunk-spiked grit in the introduction to There Will Be No Intermission — the gorgeous self-published, audience-funded, vinyl-sized artbook companion to her record of the same title, featuring surreal, fairy-tale photographs by Kahn & Selesnick, song lyrics, and Palmer’s autobiographical essays exploring the rawest life-material of art: love, loss, abortion, mothering as a working artist, the moral and spiritual collapse of one’s homeland, what it means to really show up for a friend in need, how to find a sliver of sanity in the insanest, most insaning times.
With a nod to John Lennon’s famous words, Palmer writes in the introduction:
Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. And for an artist, art is what happens when you let your bizarre, unbidden, unpredictable life steer you into creating things that you weren’t expecting to make.
Art is what happens if you’re able to hold fast — with one angry, trembling hand — to your art-mirror, the one that reflects you, your trials, your thoughts, your audience, your insights, your attempts to try to figure out and express What It All Might Fucking Mean. In that art-mirror, all of the blurry, stinkingly-similar self-portraits you have ever drawn of yourself merge into one constantly-shifting image — you — and, as an artist, you gaze into it and alternate between being horrified and fascinated with this image as you stumble down the un-illuminated road of Planlessness.
In a sentiment evocative of that arresting line from Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Life While-You-Wait” — “…ill-prepared for the privilege of living…” — she adds:
In your other hand, you try to hang onto Real Life. You clutch a wailing baby and an overstuffed suitcase and a copy of The New York Times that you haven’t had time to read (because, dammit, you’re a Good Citizen and Must Be Informed) and a pot of burning rice and a cell phone that is buzzing with unbidden text messages: your friend is dying, your Facebook account has been hacked, your pregnancy must be terminated, your chickens have been slaughtered by coyotes in the night, your marriage is collapsing, your connecting flight has been cancelled, your ex just shot himself in the head, the right wing has read your stupid blog-poem about the Boston bomber and is emailing murder threats, the fetus you’re finally happy about hosting may or may not be deformed, and your mother is pissed you haven’t called in so long.
What, then, does the life-assailed artist do to go on making art, to go on living? She does in the private realm the selfsame thing she must do in public in order to call herself an artist, which Toni Morrison articulated exquisitely in her timeless meditation on the artist’s task in trying times: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.” Inverting the direction of responsibility to the inner world, where all capacity for outward action invariably begins, Palmer writes:
You read the text messages in one hand while trying to hold your well-polished but increasingly heavy and irritating art-mirror in the other, with a growing sense of resentful detachment — as if the text messages are somebody else’s newsfeed, as if the art-mirror is a heavy curse that you never asked to carry in the first place.
And you keep running down the road. If you’re lucky, you don’t drop the mirror. Sometimes you look at the mirror and you’re like: Why the fuck am I carrying you when I have all this other shit to carry? And sometimes you drop the mirror in exhaustion and fall to your knees. And you drop the suitcase, and the child, and the phone, and the pot of burned rice, and you simply have a cry, knowing that you’re just too goddamn tired to do life, much less make any artful sense out of what’s happening.
Then you get up and start running again.
Complement this portion of There Will Be No Intermission, which contains many more raw-hearted meditations on art and life, with Courtney Martin and Wendy MacNaughton’s magnificent illustrated manifesto for creative resilience in hard times and E.E. Cummings on the courage to be yourself, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s haunting reading of Cummings’s “Humanity i love you” and “The Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich — another artist of unassailable truth-telling bravery, another poet laureate of the tenacity of the human spirit.